Dr. Sven van de Wetering on Augustine, Free Will and Psychological Analysis

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In Part Five of this interview series, Dr Sven van de Wetering speaks to Scott Jacobsen about free will, Augustine and psychological analysis.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Do the psychological sciences assume Freedom of the Will? How do you define Freedom of the Will?

Dr Sven van de Wetering: The concept of freedom of will seems to have arisen in a theological context, and was well articulated by St. Augustine. The argument went something like this: God is all-powerful, and therefore capable of making people do whatever He wants.

Nevertheless, people frequently do things that displease God. This makes sense only if one assumes that God creates little zones within people’s minds in which He does not exercise the control of which he is capable. Hence, freedom of will is the ability to make choices independently of God.

Psychology has mostly moved away from this theological mode of thought and tends to be materialist in orientation. In other words, the phenomena that laypeople think of as mental or spiritual are the results of processes taking place in the brain, in accordance with physical and chemical laws.

If freedom of will implies a rejection of that materialism or implies that mental processes can somehow violate the laws of physics and chemistry, in the way that Augustine thought that humans had the freedom to violate the laws of God, then I would have to say that psychology does not endorse free will.

If, on the other hand, we mean by freedom of the will that human beings are complex creatures that, thanks to their well-developed prefrontal cortices, are capable of deciding to engage in actions that run contrary to the biological programming postulated by evolutionary psychologists or the cultural programming postulated by many other psychologists, then I would have to say that most psychologists do endorse a version of free will. Although, it is a version that does not create a little gap in the omnipotence of the laws of nature in quite the same way that Augustinian freedom of will creates a little gap in divine omnipotence.

Jacobsen: In the natural world handed to us, through the natural philosophical tradition seen in the sciences and tied to Descartes, we face the passive, naturalistic, and moving world external to our minds connected to the concept of an active but freely selecting – while constrained – mind with various psychological dynamics.

How does psychology link the first conceptualisation with the second? What seems to make sense of the issue more than others?

van de Wetering: This is mostly a levels-of-analysis issue. At the level of neurons, processes are invariable and, in your terminology, passive. At the level of organisms, though, especially of human beings, the very complexity of the interlocking systems allows them to produce the types of processes we call selecting, deciding, thinking, and so forth.

I see the disparity of these levels analysis when I, for example, play a game of chess against my computer. I know that what is happening inside the computer is just electrons running through processors according to the laws of physics, but that does not change the fact that it is actually more useful for my chess game if I interpret the computer as choosing lines of play, deciding on specific lines of attack, and thinking about its options. It is this way of thinking about the computer’s behaviour that Dennett called the intentional stance. The intentional stance is an angle of view, not a rejection of determinism or materialism.

Jacobsen: How does epistemology work in the light of the linkage between these two ideas?

van de Wetering: Thinking of yourself as a deterministic, material system when trying to make epistemological judgments is not going to get you very far (except that it may instil a certain useful humility). You get much further in epistemology if you again take the intentional stance, thinking of knowledge in terms of the goals that are served by knowing.

There will be times when one’s understanding of human beings will be furthered by thinking of them as material systems; I certainly would not want to undo all those lovely fMRI studies. At the same time, the connection between the material substrate and the phenomena we think of as mental or intentional is sufficiently loose that I will continue to endorse the use of multiple levels of analysis in psychology and numerous research techniques based on multiple sets of epistemological assumptions.

Cultural anthropologists and economists both study human beings, but do so using very different epistemologies from most psychologists (and each other); nevertheless, I find that both are a lot of fun to read because their different angles of view allow them to supplement the varied psychological perspectives through which I usually look at human behaviour.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Sven.

Dr Sven van de Wetering is an associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley. He is on the Advisory Board of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. Dr. van de Wetering earned his BSc in Biology at The University of British Columbia, his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at Concordia University and his Master of Arts, and a PhD in Psychology from Simon Fraser University. His research interest lies in conservation psychology, lay conceptions of evil, and relationships between personality variables and political attitudes. Session 1Session 2 Session 3, & Session 4 can be found here.

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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